Judd W. Patton, Ph.D. (Biography) Bellevue University Online
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How Well Do You Know The U.S. Constitution?
by
Dr. Judd W. Patton

(Written for the Bicentennial of the Constitution in the Spring of 1987) 

“Americans today have a confused understanding of the Constitution’s basic tenets and provisions.”  So concluded a recent national survey of over 1000 Americans.  Apparently many Americans are shockingly ill-informed about the content, purpose, and significance of the very document that governs our nation.  Are you?

This September 17th, our national will celebrate the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution.  Our Constitution is not just another constitution; it is the oldest living constitution in the world.  Of the 164 nations toady, all but seven have a written constitution.  Over one half of them have been written since 1974.  Ours has endured for 200 years and served as the inspiration and model for most of the others!  Clearly, it is something very, very special.

The Constitution not only united and formed a new nation – E Pluribus Unum – but it provided the foundation and framework for political and economic freedom that destined the United States to become the most powerful and productive nation the world has ever seen!

It is time for our generation to understand our Constitutional government heritage and recapture a commitment to the spirit and letter of this remarkable piece of parchment.  “We the People” must not be ill-informed about the Constitution.  As John Quincy Adams remarked, “You will never know how much it has cost my generation to preserve your freedom.  I hope you will make good use of it.”  That freedom was established by the Constitution; it will end with the Constitution’s demise.

Before reading the remainder of this article, why not skip ahead to the end of this article and discover your current “Constitutional IQ?”  Then come back and finish the article to raise your Constitutional IQ.

Historical Background

To understand the Constitution’s purpose, content, and significance, it is important to grasp the historical conditions in the 1780’s.  From the close of the Revolutionary War in 1781, general chaos and disorder reigned over the land.  The Redcoats were defeated, but now it appeared the 13 States would war against themselves!

Business was paralyzed.  Trade wars were heating up among the different States.  Interstate commerce was being stymied by protective tariffs, import duties, and other regulations.  Dozens of different currencies were circulating, most with little value.  Indeed many citizens in derision plastered their walls with them!  Crime and lawlessness were rampant.  Open hostilities erupted in major confrontations.  Remember Shay’s Rebellion?  Even a group of disgruntled soldiers besieged the State House in Philadelphia where Congress was meeting!  In short, the nation was on the verge of general anarchy.

Leading statesmen, like George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, began calling for a national constitutional convention to restore law and order.  The date was set for May 14, 1787.  Seventy-two delegates were chosen by twelve states (Rhode Island refused to send any delegates).  But a quorum of delegates did not arrive in Philadelphia until May 25th.  George Washington was chosen to preside over the convention and James Madison became the “secretary” by recording the delegate’s debates, which later earned him the title “Father of the Constitution.”

The task of creating a new government was not easy.  Disputes among the delegates nearly ended the convention several times.  Nevertheless, after many concessions and compromises, and nearly four months, 39 of the 55 delegates (the highest number ever in attendance) signed the completed document.  The historic day:  September 17, 1787.  And yet the work was not finished.  In accordance with the Constitution itself, nine states had a ratify it before it would take effect and a new government could be formed.

The ratification was hotly debated and contested.  Many leading men spoke against it.  But by December 7, 1787, Delaware became the first state to ratify the Constitution and in just over nine months from the original signing, New Hampshire became the ninth state on June 21, 1788.  It was now official!  For the record, Virginia and New York ratified on June 26 and July 26, 1788, respectively.

In accordance with the Constitution, George Washington was elected as the first President of the United States by the electoral college on February 4, 1789.  John Adams took second in the vote.  He became Vice President.  The first Congress under the Constitution met in New York City on March 4 and Washington was inaugurated April 30, 1789.  North Carolina and Rhode Island finally ratified the Constitution after Congress agreed to add a bill of rights (November 21, 1789 and May 29, 1790 respectively).

Constitutional Overview

The Constitution can be read aloud in about 23 minutes!  Frankly, it is quite easy to memorize its nine basic sections.  It consists of the Preamble, seven Articles, and 26 Amendments.  The first 10 Amendments are known as The Bill of Rights. 

In outline form the nine sections cover the following areas:

Preamble - Statement of Purpose
Article I - The Congress
Article II - The Presidency
Article III - The Supreme Court
Article IV - State and Federal Relationships
Article V - Amending the Constitution
Article VI – General Matters
Article VII – Ratification  Process
Bill of Rights - First ten plus 17 additional amendments.

Rather straightforward, isn’t it?  Now let’s review each section very briefly.

Preamble

There is no question as to the purpose of the Constitution.  Our founding fathers stated it beautifully in the preamble.  “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promoted the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Article I - The Congress

Our founding fathers were very suspicious of government power.  “If men were angels, they would have no need for government,” said Madison.  But our founding fathers knew men were not angels.  Rather they felt:  “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  Thus they were moved to separate and disperse the power of government by creating three branches:  the legislative, executive, and judicial.  As Jefferson said, “In questions of power, let no more be heard of confidence in men, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.”  Limitation of government power, the checks and balances of the three branches of government, is the central feature of our Constitution.

In the first Article the founding fathers constructed the legislative branch of the Federal government.  Congress shall consist of two bodies, the Senate and House of Representatives.  Senators are elected for 6 year terms while Representatives are elected for 2 year terms.  There are 100 senators (2 per state) and 435 Representatives today.  Congress must publish a journal of their proceedings (Congressional Record), and they can override a Presidential veto by 2/3 vote in each house.

Article I also defines the powers granted to Congress and the powers forbidden to Congress and the States.  For example, Congress can:  collect taxes, borrow money, regulate commerce, coin money, declare war, and “make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution for foregoing powers.”  But Congress cannot:  suspend a writ of habeas corpus (an order requiring that a prisoner be brought before a judge to decide whether he is being held lawfully), tax exports, nor issue titles of nobility.  On the other hand States cannot:  make separate treaties with foreign nations, coin money, issue paper money, place tariff duties on imports or exports except for small fees to cover the costs of inspection, nor carry out measures for national defense. 

In total Congress is given 21 powers: 18 in Article I, Section 8, one in Article III, and two in Article IV. These Powers define (and limit) the role of the Federal government in our nation. Can you list them?

Article II - The Presidency

Article II defines the conditions and powers of the executive branch of government.  The President of the United States must be at least 35 years old; receive a salary ($200,000 in 1987,) [Mr. Bush receives $400,000 today] that cannot be changed during his term in office; and is elected to a four year term (Amendment 22 limits his service to two terms or eight years.)

The President’s responsibilities include being Commander and Chief of the military forces; giving an annual “State of the Union” report to Congress; and appointing ambassadors, judges, and other government officials.  Should he die, resign, or be unable to perform his duties, the Vice-President becomes President.  He can be impeached for treason, bribery, or other crimes.

Article III - The Supreme Court

This section of the Constitution establishes the judicial branch of government by means of the Supreme Court and other “lower” Federal courts.  The Supreme Court, with its nine Justices, can declare unconstitutional any law - federal, state, or local - that conflicts with the Constitution 

Article IV - Federal-State Relations

States are required to honor each other’s laws and court rulings.  Thus a person cannot avoid justice by fleeing to another state.  (Returning an accused person is called extradition.)  New states may be admitted to the Union by Congress, but the new state cannot be formed by dividing or joining existing states.  Another relationship requires the Federal government to ensure that each state has a “republican form the government.”  That is, the people of each state must elect representatives to govern.

Article V, VI, and VII

Article V establishes an amending procedure for the Constitution.  In brief, Amendments can be proposed by a 2/3 vote of both houses of Congress.  Then 3/4 of the states must ratify the Amendment for it to become a part of the Constitution.  As an historical fact, there have been 7,000 proposed amendments, 32 have been submitted to the states, but only 27 have been ratified.

Article VI contains the supremacy clause known as the lynchpin of the Constitution.  That is, when state laws conflict with national laws, the latter are superior.  Article VI also forbids any kind of religious test for holding public office.

Article VII simply states that ratification of the Constitution requires 9 states.  The Constitution then concludes with the date, September 17, 1787, and the signatures of 39 delegates.

Amendments

The first 10 Amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, were ratified December 15, 1791.  These Amendments protect individuals from various acts by the Federal government.

The first Amendment establishes the freedom of religion, press, speech, assembly and petition.  The second Amendment grants the right to bear arms.  The third Amendment disallows the quartering of troops, and the fourth Amendment protects citizens from illegal search and seizures.  Amendment five specifies the rights of the accused, while the sixth Amendment guarantees a speedy trial by impartial jury.  The seventh Amendment grants the right to a trial for civil cases, and the eighth Amendment specifies that there shall be limitations on fines and punishments.  Amendments nine and ten grant rights to the people and states that may not be specified in the Constitution.

A few of the better know Amendments from 11-26 include:  #13 - the abolition of slavery; #14 - the due process Amendment that guarantees citizens shall not be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law; #16 - authorization of income taxes; #18 - the prohibition of liquor; #19 - Women’s right to vote; #21 - repeal of prohibition; and #26 - voting rights for 18-year olds. [Amendment #27 was adopted on May 7, 1992. It requires that any increase in Congressional pay not take effect until an election shall have intervened.]

Significance Of The Constitution

Our founding fathers understood that freedom has three dimensions.  Freedom from immoral action (moral freedom) and freedom from arbitrary, dictatorial government (political freedom) are the essential prerequisites for the freedom to pursue economic pursuits (economic freedom).

In regard to the moral realm John Adams said it best, “Our Constitution was made for a moral, religious people.  It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”  Thomas Jefferson captured the essence of the political realm, “A wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.  This is the sum of good government.”

The Constitution established that good government.  And in so doing it gave the nation economic freedom known as the free enterprise system.  This significance of the Constitution was that it was a document on government and on commerce.   Free, unshackled individuals at last!  It was now up to a moral people to produce an “Economic Miracle.”

The Constitution stamped out mercantilism, government barriers to trade and the granting of special monopoly privileges, and thus ended the anarchy of the 1780s.  A sound and honest, fully redeemable gold and silver dollar was established by 1792.  The road to economic prosperity had been discovered at last!

Conclusion

The Constitution is not an outdated document to be shrugged off as something that cannot or should not be the basis of our political and economic life.  True, it is not perfect.  But it has withstood the trials and tests of 200 years and survived!

Our Constitution is remarkable.  Don’t be ill-informed about its content and significance.  Why not invest 23 minutes to read it?  Make it a goal to study a good book about it.  Then on Constitution Day - each September 17th - you will be able to celebrate  and say: “I do solemnly affirm that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will faithfully discharge my duties as an American citizen.  So help me God.”

U.S. Constitution IQ Test

1.      Who is called the “Father of the Constitution?”
a.   Benjamin Franklin
b.   James Madison
c.   George Washington

2.      When was the Constitution signed?
a.   September 17, 1787
b.   July 4, 1776
c.   May 25, 1787

3.      How many delegates signed the Constitution?
a.   55
b.   72
c.   39

4.      Which state did not send representatives to the Constitutional Convention?
a.   North Carolina
b.   Delaware
c.   Rhode Island

5.      What two delegates to the Constitutional Convention became U.S. Presidents?
a.   George Washington and Thomas Jefferson
b.   George Washington and James Madison
c.   George Washington and Ronald Reagan

6.      To add an Amendment to the Constitution, how many states must approve the Amendment?
a.   75%
b.   67%
c.   50%

7.      What are the first 10 Amendments to the Constitution called?
a.   The 10 Freedoms
b.   The Bill of Rights
c.   The 10 Commandments

8.      The basic purpose of the Constitution was:
a.   To define and limit the power of government
b.   To promote the general welfare of the nation
c.   Both a and b

9.      The powers granted to Congress included each of the following except:
a.   Lay and collect taxes
b.   Print money
c.   Declare war

10.  The 18th Amendment on Prohibition of liquor was repealed after:
a.   1 year
b.   3 years
c.   15 years

11.  The President of the United Stated must be:
a.   a college graduate
b.   35 years of age
c.   A former congressman

12.  The U.S. Supreme Court:
a.   Consists of 9 judges appointed for life
b.   Consists of 9 former Senators
c.   Is under the authority of the Presidency

13.  Where in the Constitution did the Founding Fathers make room for political parties?
a.  Nowhere
b.   Bill of Rights
c.   Article I

14.  The First Amendment guarantees the Freedom:
a.   To vote
b.   To a fair trial
c.   Of  religion

15.  All powers not delegated to the Federal government by the Constitution are:
a.   Reserved to the states
b.   Reserved to the people
c.   Reserved to the states or to the people

Your Constitutional IQ
0 - 5       Poorly informed.  Study the feature article.

6 - 10     Informed.  Study to become an expert.

11 - 15   Well informed.  Share your expertise with others.

Answers:

1. B     6. A      11. B

2. A     7. B      12. A

3. C     8. C      13. A

4. C     9.  B     14. C

5. B    10. C     15. C

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